Before we get started, I’d like to acknowledge that we are on occupied territory of the Cherokee Nation.
Our clinics are pretty special places. No matter where in the world we are located they are places where people from many different backgrounds, socio-economic classes, and belief systems, in various stages of pain and distress, come together for the purpose of pooling their resources in order to heal. As caretakers of these spaces we have a rather unique vantage point. We are first-hand witnesses to the pain and isolation that are the hallmarks of our culture. At the same time, we also have the great privilege of witnessing that pain and isolation fade away into a sea of peace and tranquility for very brief moments of time. Everybody who comes in to our clinics has a different reason for being there, each person has taken a different path to get there, they all bring a little something of themselves with them, and will all take away something a little different when they leave. But they are all there with one shared purpose. To heal. Taken one at a time it would be easy for the thousands of stories we hear day in and day out to leave us with feelings of hopelessness and despair, but watching and having the opportunity to experience (for lack of a better word) the magic that happens in our treatment rooms when people come together is an incredible thing, It's hard to experience that for any amount of time and not end up changed in some way.
As acupuncturists and members of POCA, we're all pretty familiar with fractals and I don't think its much of a stretch to say that our clinics, for the most part, are fractals of POCA the organization. Just like the people who come into our clinics, Every one of us here has our own reasons for being here, we have all taken different paths to get here, we all bring something unique to add, and we all will take away something a little different from our experiences here. This is why I am so excited about the theme of this conference and this exercise in particular. I can't wait to hear everybody's story. Because it is our differences that give us strength, but where our stories converge with all of us working together, using our individual talents in support of a shared vision; that is what makes us an extremely powerful organization.
So here is my story. My answer to the question how has your clinic changed you?
It's been 9 years now since I found myself sitting in a basement on the other side of the country listening to a couple of shady-looking characters and their patients talking about this relatively new thing called community acupuncture. Almost exactly 1 year later I opened West Shore Community Acupuncture just outside of my hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and for all intents and purposes reclaimed my long forgotten status as a punk. Now I'm here 8 years later, still a punk, but down in Florida at St. Pete Community Acupuncture. and I can tell you without a doubt in my mind that my view of the world right now is entirely different than it was 9 years ago while I was sitting in that basement.
In order to talk about how I've changed, I'll need to back-track a little first to give you at least some idea where I was starting from. The decision to go to acupuncture school was really my stepping off point. Through my last few months in the army, then working various warehouse jobs, and throughout college I had this little seed of discontent growing. I had a whole lot of questions floating around in my head and not a whole lot of answers. I was pretty confused, and the only thing I really knew for certain was that there was definitely something wrong with what I was seeing in front of me and that whatever direction I was headed in was not the direction I wanted to be going.
Acupuncture school was the perfect solution at the time. First of all I absolutely fell in love with the theories and explanations behind acupuncture. It all just made a whole lot of sense to me. Second, the idea of a medicine that could actually be useful without all the advanced technology of western civilization was very appealing to me, and third, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only be a useful member of society but also to step off of that suffocating path that I was on and take a new direction. Acupuncture school and the field of acupuncture in general was definitely a new direction, in fact it was a whole new world for me and I did my best to look and act like an acupuncturist (at least the white, liberal, upper middle class version of what an acupuncturist is supposed to be). It was painful at times but I just figured my new direction in life was just going to take some getting used to. I'd be fine — and I was, sort of.
I was about a year into practice when I was invited to join this high-end, high-priced, progressive-minded clinic in downtown St. Pete. The patients were of the kind every boutique acupuncturist dreams of. Ultra-liberal movers and shakers, wealthy with lots of disposable income, worked high powered jobs, many of them were involved with different charities. Some would even regale me with their stories about how they once helped stop a war. What can I say, I was taken in, so I tried really hard to fit in; And I did ok…
It took about 6 months for the luster to wear off and the facade to wear away and I realized that I had come full circle. I was right back where I started, only worse, because in my mind I had walked the entire perimeter and found nothing. So now, not only was I lost and confused but, I had become cynical and apathetic as well. Thankfully one day in the middle of one of (what I call) my BA split shifts (you know the ones where you have a patient at 9 another at 10 then a few hours of teetering on the edge of the abyss then your last patient at 5), there was an Acupuncture Today sitting there that happened to have one of Lisa's articles in it.
As I'm sure many of you can attest, it's hard to explain to someone who never experienced the acupuncture world pre-CAN and pre-POCA, the actual level of giddiness that I felt as I read that article, then all of her articles, and eventually stayed up all night reading the “The Remedy”. I'm not one to really get in front of a large group of people and admit to feeling giddy, but that is really the only way to explain how I felt at the time. That's how I ended up in that basement.
So – An article by a very dangerous writer, a basement with a couple of shady characters, and a random second-hand recliner at WCA where I had my first community acupuncture treatment and experienced my pain and isolation melt away for a few moments; These are the things that completely changed my life, and finally gave me that new direction I had been searching for. But it was while actually practicing and doing the work when the real changes started to happen.
I did see a lot of changes in myself personally, the kind of changes you experience when you believe in what you're doing and when your values and how you make your living are actually in alignment with one another. These shouldn't be understated. They are a rare and wonderful thing in our culture and I am grateful for them every day but in the grand scheme of things they're a minor footnote. The real, profound changes, the ones that have made the biggest difference, happened in my perspective.
You know when you first look at a map, what's the first thing you have to do? You have to orient yourself. You have to know where you are in relation to everything else in order for the map to make any sense at all. Some maps have a big red arrow that says “You are here” and that makes it all nice and easy. You hardly have to think at all. You are here. Everything else is there, laid out right in front of you Simple. Up until I started working as a punk, it never really occurred to me to question the placement of that arrow. Over the last 8 or 9 years, the hardest lessons and some of the most painful changes have involved reevaluating my place on that map and repositioning that arrow. Because the one I had been using my whole life up until that point was a lie.
One of the things that I really love about this job and that I really enjoy telling people about is how when I am in my treatment room I feel like I'm a better person than I am in real life. Not because I'm putting on an act or anything like that there's just something about the room that makes me be more like the person I want to be. I've heard that experience echoed back from other people as well. It got me wondering why that is. I think it all goes back to that unique perspective that our clinics allow us. We're seeing the human experience as it really is. We're reminded every day that people are just people. That each one of us is a wonderful, messy mix of varying degrees of generosity and greed, of humility and conceit, brilliance and stupidity, love, hate, laziness, and determination, etc..
We have so much common ground between us, but from the time we are born we're told a different story. We're told that some of us are better than others, some of us are more deserving than others. You have what you have because you worked harder, made better choices, are smarter. They have what they have because they're lazy, make poor choices, don't know how to prioritize, drink soda pop, eat junk food, and smoke cigarettes. And it's a really easy thing to believe when you're one of the ones who is doing well. Unfortunately it’s also really easy to believe when you're not. Either way it effectively isolates us from one another.
I have always considered myself a pretty hard worker and have always taken pride in what I have achieved on my own. So this particular lesson didn't come easy. I fought it the whole way until I could no longer deny it. Anything I have at this point isn't because I worked harder for it or because I've made better choices. I don't deserve what I have because of some karma from a past life and horrible things don't happen to people because they somehow didn't think positively enough.
I am here mainly because I sit on top of a mountain of privilege. If you would have told me that a few years ago, I would have told you to go take a flying leap off of that mountain but that doesn't make it any less true. In fact, most of us in this room are here mainly because we are privileged enough to be here. I'm not saying this in order to discount all of the hard work and brilliance of the people sitting in this room, that's not my intent at all, because I am constantly in awe of it, but the simple fact is that acupuncture as a career choice (and as a treatment choice), with very few exceptions, has only really been accessible to people who possess a certain amount of privilege.
That hasn't always been the case. I'd imagine that most of us are here because we already recognize this. We aren't happy that acupuncture in America has become too expensive for most people and we want to do something about it. The problem is acupuncture hasn't just become over-priced. It's been stolen. It's been stolen from the people who once used it to better the health of their families and communities. It’s been stolen from the people who were using it as a means of self-determination and community control. It’s been stolen, stripped of its roots and cultural context, commodified and then sold to us.
What does that mean? It means acupuncture isn't ours. It doesn't belong to us, to you or me. It doesn't belong to the ACAOM or the NCCAOM, and it doesn't belong to POCA. It doesn’t matter if we have the noblest of ideals and the purest of intentions. It doesn't change the fact that this is stolen property, that we are acupuncturists because we have enough privilege to be acupuncturists.
We have in our hands this amazing tool, this wonderful set of skills, and don't get me wrong, we have every right to use it but with that right comes responsibility. Of course, the responsibility to use it safely and effectively and to make it as accessible to as many people as possible. That’s a given, but even greater than that, we have the responsibility to ensure that nobody has the right to keep others from using it, for their own purposes, however they see fit. In order to do that we need to change our vantage point, we need to climb down from our mountain and stand in principled solidarity with those who have been marginalized and oppressed, with those who suffer the most under this system.
Using our tools to help people, by lowering our prices and making acupuncture more affordable and accessible, is a great thing, but it isn't enough. People need to have control of their own tools for real change to happen, for real healing to occur. I first came to CAN so that I could do things the way that I wanted to do them, so that I could follow my own rules, my own set of morals and values, but along the way I learned that this is not all about me. I have a much greater responsibility than that. I owe it to all the people who acupuncture was stolen from and to all the people who could use it for the most benefit now and in the future to work toward the liberation of acupuncture for everyone. This is what POCA means to me. This is why POCA Tech is so important.
Before POCA, like I said earlier, I was becoming a pretty cynical person. Thinking about the future left me feeling nothing but hopelessness. Being along for the ride and watching what POCA has become in such a short amount of time has changed that. A decade ago Lisa and Skip and a handful of others were just a thorn in the side of some of the major acupuncture organizations. Now, look at us, 1 million + treatments in 2014, hundreds of clinics, more patient members than punks. We are changing acupuncture in this country… and POCA Tech is a perfect example of what solidarity in action looks like. There is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done, but you can feel it now, you can almost taste the change that's happening.
Even more important than this is that POCA, and what is happening in the field of acupuncture, is just a fractal of what is happening all over the world right now. We are living in exciting times. The world is changing before our eyes and POCA is, right now at this very moment, demonstrating to the world a way forward. How many times have people from other trades, professions, or fields of study come knocking on your door asking how they can do what you do? In St. Pete, that happens a lot. And they will need to figure out their own strategies and find out what works best for them in their own particular situations.
But what we can show them is what can be accomplished when people are organized and working together for a common cause. We can show them how cooperation and solidarity act to elevate all of us, and we can show them that together we are much stronger than we could ever be alone.
Ask any acupuncturist what is the most important thing to do in order to resolve a problem?. Most of them will tell you that you have to treat the root. The people in our clinics, including us, the isolation we feel, the guilt and shame we all have simply for being human, the physical and mental pain and all its manifestations that we endure, all have their root in a rotten system.
So how has my clinic changed me? It helped me to realize that if I truly want to help as many people as I can, then I need to to get to the root of the problem. There is no way in the world that I can ever accomplish this alone. If I really want to get to the root of the problem, then I have no choice but to become a revolutionary. Acupuncture can change the world. Thank you.